Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Close to Jedenew by Kevin Vennemann

We do not breathe.
Opening to
Close to Jedenew
by Kevin Vennemann
Translated from the German
by Ross Benjamin
In the opening days of the German invasion of Poland, after the Soviet Union retreated from what is now the eastern section of the country, the people of Jedenew, a small, largely isolated rural village rose up and attacked their Jewish neighbors burning their homes and farms, killing as many as they could capture.  A group of children escaped to the safety of their unfinished tree house only to be surrounded by men with guns.  Men they knew by name.  Some of the same men who were helping them build the tree house.

I was convinced that the story was true.  While it is certainly based on common events, anti-Jewish pogroms existed long before the German invasion of Poland in World War II, Close to Jedenew is fiction.  Had I learned more German when I visited the country I would have known that jeden is German for every.  So the title roughly means 'close to everywhere.'

Mr. Vennemann raises many questions in his novella, first and foremost how could people turn against neighbors they had known for generations?  How can we as readers several generations later understand such events?  What, if anything, can we learn from them?

Instead of the straightforward narrative style, or lack of style, used so often to describe the Holocaust, Mr. Vennemann makes stylistic choices that seem designed to make the story more confusing  for his readers.  He writes from the collective perspective of the children hiding in the tree house, using "we" instead of "I," slipping from the perspective of one child to another without announcing that he has done so, sticking to present tense even when this forces him to be non-grammatical, switching freely from present events to past events, sometimes in the same sentence so that the reader cannot fully understand the opening of the sentence until the end has been reached.

His child narrators seem to see everything as though it's all happening at once.  They don't so much live in the moment as they live in all moments all the time.  The neighbor who attacks her family in one sentence speaks to them as a friend in the next.  A girl running through the field outside her home towards the clearing is a wonderful memory of a summer evenings play and at the same time a frightful escape from a very real threat of death.  Tripping and falling can be laughed at in the same sentence where it means death for the woman and child who fall into the hands of the neighbors who pursue them, a simultaneously friendly and deadly game of tag.

There's is no way the reader can understand the situation clearly until it's all over, even then we cannot fully comprehend what has happened.  It's a confusing jumble, which is just what it must have been to the children who lived it.  This is how Mr. Vennemann forces his readers to experience rather than read.  He is not going to give us any answers. There is only the fact that neighbors who lived side by side for generations turned against the outsiders in their midst, not that they turned against each other, they didn't, one group murdered the smaller, less powereful group with no provocation but the implicit permission to do so given by the soldiers who stood idly by while it happened. 

The book opens with "We do not breathe" as the characters sit silently listing to the Jedenew famers who drink and sing old partisan songs in the woods outside the characters farm.  The book ends with "I do not breathe" as a single surviving character stands alone in the tree house; the farmers below her  laugh and then fall silent.  There is nothing more to say, says the narrator, but is this true?

Why have the farmers fallen silent?  Are they faced with the reality of what they have done, what they have become?  Are they simply finished?  Is this the silence that comes at the end of the chase?  Does the narrator live or die in the book's final line?

There is so much that the reader still wants to know; so much that we cannot ever know for there is no one left to tell the tale, no one that we could fully believe.  Writers born thirty years after the  Holocaust like Mr. Vennemann  can only attempt to imagine events like what happened close to Jedenew just before the Nazis arrived.

Close to Jedenew is a book that has gotten better the more I've spent time thinking about it.  I will confess that I was confused while reading it. I was lost at times.  Sometimes, I had little idea where the story was or what was going on.  It was hard to tell who was talking and difficult to keep track of the characters.  But at the same time I was compelled to keep reading, both to find out how it would end, though I knew all along, and to stay with not just the characters but with the writer as well.  I'd sum up my experience as "I don't know what's going on but I want to know what's going to happen!"  I suspect that Close to Jedenew is a book that will offer its readers more with each successive re-reading.  It's a tough nut to crack, but one that is well worth the effort.

And it's my new favorite book.


Sam Sattler said...

Your comment about the book getting better the more time you spent thinking about it is interesting. I've noticed that waiting two or three days before writing something about a book has the same effect on me. I've been trying to give my impressions of the "writing" as much as of the "book" more, and sometimes I see things that were not immediately apparent to me. I am willing to bet that my opinion goes up about 75% of the time lately, remains the same about 25% of the time, and never goes down. I have three reviews to write at the moment, and I wonder what my subconscious will come up with when I grab the keyboard and start pecking away.

Judith said...

I'm so glad to have learned about this novella. I will certainly research the author and hopefully get hold of the book in one way or another.

I just want you to know that your blog is listed on my "Blogs of Substance" list. Should have been long ago.

Best to you,
Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

Trisha said...

I've read many a book which frustrated me (right word?) while reading but grew on me after, sort of continued to occupy my thoughts in a not-quite-pleasant but not-altogether-annoying sort of way.

I'll have to pick this one up; I'm intrigued.

C.B. James said...

Sam, For a book to get better over time, time spent away from it, is actually a bit rare for me. Most of the time my overall opinion remains the same, but there are some books, like this one, that get better the more time I spent thinking about them.

Judith, Thanks. I encourage everyone to visit Judith's excellent blog, too.

Trisha, I hope you'll read it sometime. I'd love to hear what others think of it. I'd really love to hear what German readers think of it.